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There are many kinds of agricultural aviation pilots. Perhaps the best-known are aerial applicators, or “spray pilots.” Once known as aerial crop dusters, or simply crop dusters, agricultural aviators fly small turboprop planes or helicopters over crops and orchards, spraying liquid fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Some also spray chemical defoliators over cotton fields in the South to separate the cotton from its leaves. Very often, agricultural pilots drop seeds to sow fields or reforest wilderness areas.

Agricultural pilots also deliver cargo to and from farms, drop food over fields to feed livestock, and take aerial photographs of farms and forests. Some even help fight fires, preserving our natural environment by dumping water or fire retardants over burning fields and woodlands. Agricultural pilots can take on some or all of these tasks, depending on demand for their services as well as their training and interests.

Agricultural aviators live and work in about thirty states, in peaceful rural or suburban settings near farms and ranches. Most are found in California or the South, where the crop-growing season is the longest. Others work in the Northeast or West, where there are large forests and wilderness areas.

Working independently is a major perk of the job. Half of all agricultural aviators are self-employed. In addition to airborne tasks, these agricultural pilots care for their own aircraft, find and service clients, and keep business records. Other agricultural pilots are small business owners who often fly their own planes but who also hire and supervise other pilots, in addition to handling the business. The other half of all agricultural aviators work for large aerial applicator, or crop dusting, companies, or for the federal, state, or local government. Working alone or as part of a team, all agricultural pilots enjoy the joy and freedom of flight.

Piloting an agricultural aircraft is usually seasonal work. Spraying is done during the spring planting and summer growing seasons. In California and in the South, aviators work six to nine months. In the Northeast, work often lasts only two months. Some agricultural aviators move from one area to another to earn a full year's salary, beginning, say, in the South, where the growing season starts early, and working their way north.

Before spraying, pilots must post signs and notify residents and businesses so people and livestock can be moved from target areas. Some pilots mix the chemicals and load them into their planes. Others have ground crews to help.

Piloting any plane or helicopter can be hazardous, but agricultural aviators face special risks. Flying low to the ground, often just feet above crops, they encounter obstacles like trees, power lines, and houses. For protection, helmets, harnesses, safety belts, and fireproof flight suits are used. To prevent risks from chemicals, agricultural aviators wear protective masks and fireproof gloves.

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